On this historic day in America, experts are predicting that the 2020 election is on track for the highest turnout in more than a century. Waiting in a two-hour line before I voted early this morning, in a school located on New Street in Manhattan’s Financial District, I heard a couple of uplifting stories of engagement in the democratic process.

Mostly, these were anti-Trump activists joining forces with regular New York citizens talking about how they’d used new community-building tools to get new voters to the booth. Those seen and overheard conversations reminded me of the recent work undertaken by Wide Awakes, an artist coalition “reimagining a future world through radical self-emancipation and creative collaboration.”

In the year of the improbable where Donald Trump was able to stand on the debate stage and declare that he’s done more for Black people that any other American president “with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln,” it was refreshing to see the recent activities of this new group. In its original incarnation, the Wide Awakes was founded as a youth organization during the 1860 presidential election. The goal was to promote abolitionist efforts around the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln.

One month ago, on the weekend of October 3rd, Wide Awakes Day was a global celebration of justice that sought to inspire civic joy. Wide Awakes in New York City led a series of events including a march and feminist parade. The weekend capped off with a voting-themed boat parade in the New York Harbor, hosted by the Wide Awakes Navy.

Wide Awakes Day NYC Oct 3, 2020. Photograph by Alex Fradkin
Wide Awakes Day NYC Oct 3, 2020. Photograph by Alex Fradkin
Wide Awakes Day NYC Oct 3, 2020. Photograph by Terrence Jennings
Wide Awakes Day NYC Oct 3, 2020. Photograph by Alex Fradkin

On its 160th anniversary, this felt like a new historic development celebrating the spirit of a Chicago gathering which took place on October 3rd, 1860, when around 10,000 so-called Wide Awakes marched in a three-mile procession.

This year, famous names like Kehinde Wiley and Arthur Jafa have often been mentioned in the press as well-known Wide Awakes, but this is truly a case of strength in numbers. Along with partner organizations, the Wide Awakes aim to counter voter intimidation by offering arts, dance and music events at voting centers nationwide to keep voters entertained and motivated while they wait in line to cast their vote.

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VOTE WIDE AWAKE 👁✨ @joytothepolls

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Today, in New York City, Wide Awakes partnered with Chef José Andres’ World Central Kitchen to distribute free meals at voting centers in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. In Philadelphia Wide Awakes partnered with Compton Cowboys to spread the message on voting through the city on horseback. (This occurred on Sunday, November 1st).

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VOTE FOR OUR LIVES @wideawakes 🧿 🌎 The Awakening is a @wideawakes movement that has inspired one of our anthems such as this one by @joseparla and @arthurhbaker 👁 We encourage All Wide Awakes to make anthems and continue to bring joy. Stay tuned for more information on the release of a new EP containing three songs by Arthur Baker and José Parlá being released on vinyl and available soon on ✨ Directed by @joseparla in collaboration with @maryamshines Photography by Anthony Artis @artphotofilms @PascalPerich @reyparlastudios 🪐 special thanks to all @wideawakes family @hankwillisthomas @jr @marc @wildcatebonybrown @zahrasherzad @argonautphoto @traceyryans @michelepred @carly_fischer @rjkhckly @craigdykers @browngirlcurator @dukerileystudio @blackthought @cobykennedy @mikaylascout @yashuared @helina.metaferia @reyparlastudio @stretcharmstrong @ghettogastro @ghettogray @thereallisaleone @dvcai @youngarts @kaws @juliachiang @marcus.logan @fab5freddy @swoonhq @yvette__molina @yvonneforce @leo_villareal @nourbatyne

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Wide Awakes aim to encourage civic engagement beyond this election. Additionally, they developed a film titled Eyes Open. Capes On. with Black Thought of The Roots that outlines the mission of the current movement, advocating that any person can be Wide Awake by simply taking action to protect civic rights and democracy. The 4-minute film is available here.

A few days before the election, we caught up with the artist Hank Willis Thomas. He is the man who convened a few friends back in January in an attempt to mobilize an agile network of artists and activists from the creative industries with a view of relaunching the Wide Awakes movement as a means to get out the vote in the lead up to this election.

Although the group prefers to remain leaderless, the artist Hank Willis Thomas is one of the originators of the new Wide Awakes movement

What are the parallels between your 2010 movement now and the original Wide Awakes movement of 1860?

The Wide Awakes formed as a grassroots movement to rally support for Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and abolition. The movement was decentralized, so chapters were independently organized throughout Northern cities, and later across the US. The resurgence of Wide Awakes in 2020 is inspired by this same model. Anyone and everyone can be a Wide Awake. Chapters have been formed all over the US and internationally in this way. The first Wide Awakes also wore capes, so we’ve adopted this visual marker; refreshing it with artist collaborations to make vibrant capes of different styles and fabrics. Anyone can make a cape and join the movement.

The Wide Awakes is tackling racism, promoting new forms of feminism, and pushing for civic engagement through artistic expression. What, for you, sparked this latest activist drive?

The world is reawakening to the reality of our plight and the urgency to take action. On October 3rd, now Wide Awakes Day, people from all over the world joined in marches for (and celebrations of) civic participation. Wide Awakes came together all over the world, in a varied display of unity, joy and action in the face of systems that seek to divide and oppress us. Alone we are asleep, together we are awake.

What is at stake in this November 3rd election?

Democracy and Liberty; everything and nothing. Wide Awakes participate in non-partisan efforts to galvanize voting in this election and revel in Civic Joy. This mission, however, extends far beyond November 3rd. The first Wide Awakes group disbanded after Lincoln’s election, thinking they achieved lasting justice. Present-day Wide Awakes look beyond November towards a future of universal and enduring self-emancipation.

Do you believe American youth are truly committed to social change?

Being young in this time when our life and breath is threatened every day by an invisible virus and by forces of oppression means that we have been woken up earlier, and are staring down that path of being wide awake. This is why I am encouraged that our future is in their hands.